Category Archives: John Updike

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on among the world’s librarians and metadata experts whenever I look at the Library of Congress cataloging information for a work of fiction. For instance, here’s the complete listing for an acclaimed 2006 novel celebrated for its verve and wit and sprawl:

1. Young women—Fiction.

Here’s one for an older novel, a National Book Award winner by one of American literature’s signature 20th century authors:

1. Americans–Mexico–Fiction. 2. Failure (Psychology)–Fiction. 3. Chicago (Ill.)–Fiction. 4. Depression–Fiction. 5. Young men–Fiction. 6. Mexico–Fiction.

And, back to the present again, a relatively recent Pulitzer Prize winner:

1. Greek Americans–Fiction. 2. Detroit (Mich.)–Fiction. 3. City and town life–Fiction. 4. Suburban life–Fiction.

If you keep up with fiction at all, you can probably take a good guess at the titles of the last two books. (No need to prolong the mystery: In order, they’re Marisha Pessl‘s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Saul Bellow‘s The Adventures of Augie March, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex.) But few people would discuss what those novels are about in the Library of Congress’ terms. Indeed, the information for Middlesex seems to avoid the book’s most relevant plot point (Hermaphroditism–Fiction.).

All of which is a long way of saying for the past month I’ve been amused and baffled by the metadata for short fiction on the New Yorker‘s website. For about a month, I’ve been logging examples at my Tumblr, and the ongoing effort to summarize fiction with streams of keywords feels at once charming and pointless, like a child trying to capture moonlight in a jar. New stories on the website are keyworded with an entertaining profligacy, as in the case of the Jonathan Lethem story that inspired me to start logging keywords in the first place:

Pornography, Clerks, Stores, Threesomes, Sex, Videos, New York City, Critics, Reviewers, Transsexuals, Sex Machines, Vomit

This kind of labor goes on constantly in editorial hives today, though it often goes undiscussed—editors are logging, tagging, keywording, catagorizing, metadata-ing. The Great God CMS must be pleased. It is tedious but essential work: Because there is no telling how articles—sorry, “content”—will be used in the years to come, those words are the necessary toeholds for databases in the future. And because nobody knows what information we’ll need years, centuries from now, the more keywording the better. The New Yorker has done its bit to make sure that anybody researching the role of sex machines, or vomit, in the first decade of the Tea Party era will be able to reckon with Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic.”

Older stories are keyworded much more parsimoniously—perhaps this is because because the responsible party is concerned only with finding the essence of a story, but more likely because this work is being done in a hurry. Even so, if you studied English in high school, you know this story:

Lots; Mob Violence; Small Towns; Stoning

You probably know this one too:

Adolescence; Bathing Suits; New England; Supermarkets

Those scattered terms can be enough to let you know what a story is. But it’s not enough to say what it’s about, not really, at least partly because emotional states don’t get keyworded at the New Yorker. There’s nothing in the metadata for Vladimir Nabokov‘s “Symbols and Signs” (“Insane; Birthdays; Children; Parents; Russia, Russians; Gifts: New York City; Immigrants”) that would get at its tone of emotional devastation, the despair in its line about “neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners.” The three keywords for Alice Munro‘s “A Wilderness Station” (“Canada; Letters; Murder”) are almost comically insufficient at summarizing a story about guilt, accusation, and suppression that stretches across decades.

So be it. If fiction could be summarized in a series of nouns it would stop being fiction; its abstractions render abstracts meaningless, or at least beside the point. Still, I was disappointed to see how shabbily James Thurber has been treated on this front by the keepers of the New Yorker archives. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for instance, is entirely bereft of relevant keywords. (Just “The New Yorker, magazine, subscription”—when in doubt, pitch a subscription, apparently.) If you want to know what “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about, you’re just going to have to read it—which, in a perfect world, is just as it should be. But how much has the story’s lack of keywords diminished its chances of being discovered and read?

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976’s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983’s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.'”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

On Roger’s Version

At Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, I have a long piece on John Updike‘s 1986 novel, Roger’s Version. This essay is part of NBCC’s occasional series “In Retrospect,” which looks back at finalists and winners of its annual awards. Roger’s Version was a finalist for the NBCC’s annual award in fiction, but didn’t win the prize; that honor went to Peter Taylor‘s A Summons to Memphis, a book I don’t know. (It took the Pulitzer Prize in fiction that year as well.)

The gist of my essay is that while many reviewers of Roger’s Version understood (and admired) the novel as just the latest in a string of Updike’s studies of sex in the suburbs–though with an unusual amount of research into theology and computer science applied to it—it’s a trickier book than that. The book takes a few metafictional turns, some fairly obvious but a few willfully obscure. It can be hard to read Updike’s intentions there: He either was careful not to draw too much notice to his experimenting, wanted to test the reader’s attentiveness, or both. Regardless, it’s a book that rewards close reading, so this was my attempt to walk through some of the book’s inner workings. A few grafs from the introduction:

Yet the most curious, persistent, and interesting tension in Roger’s Version largely escaped the notice (or interest) of most critics, despite the fact that it’s plainly stated in the book’s title: Roger is telling a version of events, inventing the affair between Dale and Esther as an angry acting-out of his bitterness over the chill in his marriage and Dale’s intellectual project, which he finds “aesthetically and ethically repulsive.” Roger’s Version isn’t just among Updike’s most meticulously researched novels—it’s also one of his most ingenious in terms of style, perspective, and willingness to test narrative reliability. As such, it’s a strong counterargument to the notion that Updike was an artful domestic realist who tinkered often with setting but little with structure and perspective.

It turns out, though, that this particular tinkering project has a fairly serious design flaw. As readers, we can get behind the idea that Roger’s narcissism prompts him to conjure up an affair—that’s an imaginative feat wholly within anybody’s power, even if we can’t do it with Updike’s skill or his affinity for the rude, naked statement. But it’s difficult to turn narcissism into a deep understanding of computer programming, which Updike suggests Roger possesses in the book’s late pages. So if it’s not a busted narrative, what is it? Maybe a profound joke on deus ex machina—the fact that Roger is suddenly bestowed powers he couldn’t naturally possess speaks to the unknowability of God’s will. Or perhaps Updike is making a more cynical point, one in keeping with the cynicism of his hero: That proving Roger’s overblown sense of entitlement demands Updike take liberties with his own sense of omnipotence, wildly pulling the strings of others’ knowledge and behavior.

To put it another way: What better way to show how arrogant your protagonist is than to arrogantly unsettle the ground rules of realist fiction? And Roger Lambert is unquestionably one of the more arrogant creations in Updike’s oeuvre. How dare Lambert? How dare Updike? The answers are essentially the same for both: Pretending to God’s power implicates Roger and Updike in equal proportions.

This piece has been in the drawer for a while. I wrote an early draft of it about two years ago at the request of a website that was soliciting long essays on contemporary novels. Shortly after I filed the piece I was told the site was shutting down. (I don’t believe this was a cause-and-effect thing, though an anxious writer always wonders….) In any event, thanks to the 1986-7 board of the NBCC for making Roger’s Version a fiction finalist—not just because it honored a good novel, but also, more selfishly, because it gave me a chance to give the piece a home.

Links: Another Day

Rohan Maitzen has a lovely stemwinder in Open Letters Monthly about her experience reading Gone With the Wind for the thirty-second time. Her conclusion is blunt, and she’s not alone in coming to it: “[I]t rejects precisely the qualities I had always celebrated in its heroine, while embracing her most loathsome values. Punishing Scarlett for rebelling against her identity as a ‘lady,’ it endorses racism and romanticizes slavery. For all its undeniable narrative power, its passion, drama, and pathos, it is, morally, an appalling book.” But she takes a thoughtful and entertaining path to get to that point.

Sue Miller on her new novel, The Lake Shore Limited, makes a comment that may be relevant to the discussion about sentiment here a few days back: “I teetered between two opposing modes of writing: the mode that wanted to make the story emotionally compelling, to make you cry, and the other mode, which was to leave the story open, in some sense, and to make it ask more than it resolved for you.”

If publishers are having a hard time figuring out how to make money off e-books, they have a kindred spirit in Johannes Gutenberg, who died bankrupt.

Coming soon: A book-length appreciation of John Carpenter‘s cult classic They Live by Jonathan Lethem.

Myla Goldberg: “Certain issues stick with authors whether or not they want them to. Memory might be mine.”

Remembering Thomas Wolfe, born 110 years ago today.

Scenes from the first international conference of the John Updike Society, where the author’s childhood friends recalled his disinterest in tying his shoes and odd use of a basketball.

Paying tribute to Mark Twain on a Swiss trail.

Theodore Dreiser‘s “Library of American Realism.”

Ishmael Reed
on why colleges shouldn’t teach The Wire.

“Here I am, a guy who has written seven novels about life in my 20th and 21st century (and has had five agents sell none of them), and I find less than seven contemporary novels worth reading about my time on earth.” Can’t imagine why…

The Baker Connection

The new issue of the Quarterly Conversation includes an interesting essay by Barrett Hathcock proposing that Nicholson Baker is a kind of missing link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace. Baker, Hathcock argues, fetishized Updike’s concern with exacting detail, made that detail a fictional destination in itself, and Wallace in turn took that hyperprecision even further. Hathcock admits it’s a bit contrived to try to set the three authors up in a row, and the idea of chronological progression among the three is a bit off—Wallace’s first novel came out a year before Baker’s first novel, so who’s influencing whom here? But there’s some value in knocking the three guys against each other. A little surprisingly, Hathcock finds the clearest distinctions among the three in their nonfiction:

Updike is the great Professional of postwar letters; the man wrote everything with a postal regularity. The lesson of his career seems to be that one ought to be able to do everything all the time. Post-Baker, Wallace also writes nonfiction but does so in a way that dramatizes his unsuitability for the task at hand. Think of Wallace in “Up, Simba,” slowly scanning the political tour bus and positioning himself as anything but a professional journalist. This is the unique quality of his journalism: it offers a behind-the-scenes view of its own reportage; it dramatizes its own wrong turns, its own attempts at coherence. Where Baker sews in his own mistakes in U and I, Wallace adopts this mistaken identity as his very authorial persona.

I do think Baker and Wallace had more in common as nonfiction writers than the essay suggests, though. Both were clearly influenced by the New Journalism, which allowed the writer to step into the narrative, question the idea of narrative, and pursue unlikely angles. Both could take a topic and research it into the ground—think of Baker’s investigation of the word “lumber” or Wallace’s essay on what usage manuals might say about democracy. As stylists, both are adherents of the fussy, footnote-y school—though Hathcock suggests Wallace was a moralist in a way Baker never has been. Even so, it’s surprising Hathcock can’t dig up much evidence of one having read the other, though I don’t doubt a Baker novel or two was in Wallace’s library.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

News Feed as Archive

Ruth Franklin, commenting on the New York Timesarticle on John Updike‘s papers, writes that such collections are inevitably disappointing:

[T]the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there.

And there’ll be plenty more not-there in future archives, she notes; after all, there’s no paper trail when writers draft their novels in Word. “What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art,” she writes. “And that process leaves no trace.” But it may be that the lack of evidence of excisions and changes may be replaced with a whole new set of data points relating to the writing process. Assuming people get smart about archiving, there’ll be plenty of blog posts, Tweets, and Facebook updates for literary biographers to trawl through in the future, and those updates will be more precise to boot. Where once Updike hung onto a Planters Peanut Bar wrapper for some reason at some point, we can now know that a future brilliant writer, at 2:15 a.m. on July 2, 2008, liked a Diet Coke-and-Mentos video.

That bit of information, in itself, isn’t very meaningful. (Unless, I suppose, this hypothetical brilliant writer’s most powerful work involves Diet Coke and Mentos.) But all that online activity, with the authority of timestamping, might make for a kind of a negative portrait—an image of the writer when he or she wasn’t writing that hints as much at the “alchemy” as any other assortment of writerly detritus. And if there’ll be less evidence of the careful revisions that Updike’s archive displays, there’ll probably be more commentary about the process than what Updike bothered to write down. The ephemera will be there; we just won’t have to find shelf space for it.

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Links: For Want of a Blurb…

Novelist Robert Girardi, author of Amelia’s Ghost Madeleine’s Ghost, has run into some bad luck of late and is now working janitorial and maintenance jobs in the D.C. area—though I can only work up so much sympathy for a guy who wound up in jail after “he came home bombed on scotch and tried to wrestle [his wife] to the floor.” Girardi fumes that he’s been unfairly neglected by the Washington Post—“You’d think my first book in 10 years, they’d at least give me a two-incher”—but there are some problems even a book review can’t solve.

Independent publisher MacAdam/Cage, which seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth in the past year, is apparently active again, sending out galleys and saying it plans to put out some of the books it had delayed. The MacAdam/Cage website suggests the revival is not yet complete—the homepage is still pushing Brendan Short‘s Dream City, which came out in 2008—but I’m hoping that Jack PendarvisShut Up, Ugly eventually hits shelves.

Southern Methodist University Press isn’t quite saved from the chopping block, but its existence now seems a bit more secure than it did a week ago. Ron Hogan has spent the past week at Beatrice catching up with some of the writers SMU Press publishes.

Annie Proulx sees a bit of her life in Wyoming in the wood sculptures of British artist David Nash.

Lionel Shriver values her life at around $20,000. “They have actually put a literal price on human life in [Britain]; it is worth $15,000 a year… I thought that was a little on the low side. If it were a matter of my life I might throw in an extra five grand.”

Julia Keller sounds a dissenting note about Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, advocating instead for Susan Fromberg Schaeffer‘s 1989 novel, Buffalo Afternoon.

John Waters has some suggestions for a high-school reading list; his heart is in the right place, though it’s doubtful he’d get much teaching work. “You have to give kids books that surprise them a little. I didn’t care about ‘The Life of Benjamin Franklin'; I wanted to read ‘Naked Lunch.’

If Curtis Sittenfeld is going set a book in Wisconsin, shouldn’t she know better than to use a non-word like “Wisconsonian”?

John Updike‘s typewriter will be auctioned next month. A study of the ribbon reveals that he used the machine to inform his typist that “her services will no longer be needed because he purchased a word processor.”